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Visibility, Control Key for Healthcare Wireless Networks

Bob Zemke, Director of Healthcare Solutions at Extreme Networks advises that network visibility and control are key to successful wireless deployments.

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

As a result of a growing reliance on wireless networks to support mobility and connected medical devices, healthcare organizations are facing many challenges bringing their legacy networks up to speed to support the influx of connected devices, from bring-your-own-device (BYOD) initiatives to connected medical equipment.

Control, visibility key for healthcare wireless networks

“We're seeing hospitals having more devices and people connected across the wireless network than the wired infrastructure,” Bob Zemke, Director of Healthcare Solutions at Extreme Networks, told HITInfrastructure.com.

“Wi-Fi first started rolling out about 15 years ago it was considered it would never be robust enough for mission critical, life critical scenarios,” he continued. “And yet that's exactly what we have today.”

Health systems and hospitals looking to increase the performance of their networks to handle the traffic from mobile devices and applications need to consider the expanse of their network and how much their staff depends on connected devices.

“When hospitals look at IT they’re focused on the applications that the clinicians are going to use like the electronic medical record platform they’re going to migrate to — whether it's Epic, Cerner, or some other player — it's always around the initiative that the clinicians are going to interface with. A lot of hospitals are caught off guard on the requirements on that back end to insure the performance and delivery of those systems,” Zemke claimed

READ MORE: Healthcare Wireless Network Upgrades Needed for the IoT

According to Zemke, that network infrastructure is often left to the eleventh hour. The realization eventually hits once IT staff discovers that they lack the network visibility needed to successfully deliver connected digital systems.

“As we plan for more IoT devices, we're looking at more systems being compounded and added,” he said. “Hospitals need to take a second look at what infrastructure they have today and is it a design that's based on today's needs, or was it a design that was based on five or maybe even ten years ago?”

One particular challenge many healthcare organizations face when implementing a modern wireless network is effectively covering the large area of mission-critical connected devices.

“Hospitals can just be a very complicated design environment from a radio frequency planning perspective,” Zemke maintained. “Just the building materials and properties, and the expectation that the Wi-Fi has to work reliably everywhere.”

“Separate a hospital environment from a standard office environment where you're focused in cube areas, the conference rooms, and maybe the break rooms,” he continued. “In a hospital we have to make sure that the wireless connectivity is robust everywhere including the stairwells. We find clinicians tend to run up and down the stairs rather than wait for elevators and if they're carrying Wi-Fi enabled phones that they're using messaging and alerting then that area needs connectivity. We have to look at the workflow habits even around the hospital.”

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The design involved in implementing a hospital wireless network is much more involved than in other industries because of the constant connectivity needed by healthcare professionals everywhere on the property, including the facility's grounds. Clinicians taking breaks outside need their wireless devices connected to the network in the event of an urgent call.

“There are so many different connected machines now inside of a hospital environment that I other markets really have to deal with,” Zemke related. “We have to think in terms of not just the connectivity of these machines and these devices but what are they doing on the network? How are they behaving? And that's a struggle for most hospitals today it's not just making sure it's connected but in terms of security and compliance and patient safety.”

Organizations have to be much more granular when it comes to IoT support of a healthcare wireless network, an area Zemke believes many organizations struggle to maintain experienced staff and educate current staff to meet the maintenance demands of their wireless networks.

The increase in mobile and IoT device use raises concerns about which devices are communicating with the network during periods of high traffic and whether mission-critical devices have preference over non-essential devices during those times. Bandwidth is always a concern for healthcare organizations adding connected devices to their infrastructure.

“Bandwidth is something that has to be monitored almost in real time because as more devices come on, sometimes they're more chatty versus bandwidth intensive,” Zemke stated. “IoT devices will periodically send data. However, other devices such as telemetry are very focused and can't afford to lose a single packet.”

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How to update a wireless network to support different levels of data exchange depends on increasing the bandwidth threshold because data traffic is significantly increased. In order to determine a wireless infrastructure upgrade, organizations need to asses their network periodically during periods of high traffic to see how the bandwidth is affected under heavy workloads.

Device prioritization is also a concern for healthcare organizations that want to assure that connected medical devices have priority over personal devices when connecting to the network.

“It has to be designed just like air traffic control,” Zemke explained. “We have to look at the critical devices and how to prioritize them. We start with mission critical systems, life critical, telemetry, emergency communications, nurse call, then we look at maybe the business applications and systems, and everything else needed to support the clinicians' access and their devices.What bandwidth is left you typically have to provide for the patients.”

According to Zemke, network visibility and control are key to a successful wireless deployment and the most-sought-after request healthcare organizations express when upgrading their wireless networks.

Network visibility allows IT staff to know when and how connected medical devices are communicating with the network and where improvements can be made. Network visibility gives healthcare organizations control over their networks and the devices connected to them.

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